A Pride of Footnotes

Robert M. Adams

  • The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Vol. VII: ‘Biographia Literaria’ edited by James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate
    Routledge/Princeton, 306 pp, £50.00, May 1983, ISBN 0 691 09874 3

The majestic new Bollingen edition of Coleridge’s collected works edges, with the Biographia Literaria edited by James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate, a bit past its halfway point. Nine of the projected 16 volumes are now in print. In addition, three of the projected five volumes of the private Notebooks have appeared. (They are a separate Bollingen project, though Kathleen Coburn is in command of both.) Because Coleridge left a most untidy record of published, semi-published and unpublished writings, recovery of his occasional and periodical journalism, plus the enormous mass of his fascinating notebooks, his profuse marginalia, and the recent edition of his collected letters in six volumes, has been a more exciting process than for most writers of his vintage it generally is. When the two great Bollingen enterprises will have been added to Professor Grigg’s monumental edition of the letters, we shall have the makings of an entire, substantially new Coleridge, whose position among the extraordinary minds of an extraordinary age will be more firmly established than ever.

The Biographia Literaria is not, to be sure, in any sense a ‘lost’ piece of Coleridge. Since its original publication in 1817, it has been four times reprinted and annotated, making the present edition the sixth. None of these reprints has special authorial sanction, there are hardly any significant textual variants to be recorded, and no manuscript material survives. The basic text is, and always has been, that of 1817. More significantly, the book has long outlived most of the particular issues and controversies with which it engages, to become an active component in much modern critical thinking. From George Saintsbury through I.A. Richards to Kenneth Burke, it has exercised the active stimulus, not of a privileged book, but of one which in each generation earns afresh its own authority. For all its oddities – and certainly it is the oddest volume ever dictated by the mouth of man – it has never faded from sight or fallen out of use.

What then are the problems with the book? Well, as everyone recognised from the first, it is remarkably disorganised – not simply in dealing with a variety of topics (no account of an active man’s literary life and opinions could do otherwise), but in the disparity, the remoteness from one another, of the topics with which a reader must cope. Perhaps 80 per cent of the book proceeds – querulously, jocularly, conversationally – at a level that offers no problem to an average, well-read, reasonably informed peruser. Some 20 per cent or so deals in very laboured and abstract language with technical philosophical questions, notably theories of perception and mental association. Between pride and self-doubt, the author himself declares that most people will not be able to understand this material, and should not try. Across a striking hiatus in MS, we are then led to a vigorous magnification of the imagination as the supreme element of poetry, and an energetic defence of Wordsworth’s poetry which begins with a recitation of its faults. Interspersed with these arguments are comic accounts of the author’s misadventures as a periodical journalist, declamations on the economics of authorship, and statements of political principle.

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[*] Since footnotes are numbered by their position on the page, except that a footnote carried over from one page to another is assumed to stand at the head of the second page, the superscripts on the footnote which in Volume I runs from page 39 to 41 are numbered in the following order: a, 3, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, a, 1; on page 42, the superscripts run from top to bottom of the page: *2, 3, a, 4, 5, 1. The system is strictly logical, the effect bewildering.